Family & Companions
Golden Age Hollywood’s ultimate O.G., Edward G. Robinson made a living as a "tough guy" in a raft of iterations, from hardboiled newspaperman to intrepid G-man. In real life soft-spoken, intellectual and selfless, Robinson would nevertheless imprint himself as cold-eyed Machiavellian thugs in such film classics as "Little Caesar" (1931), "The Sea Wolf" (1941) and "Key Largo" (1948) – though he could also single-handedly lift films with his rapid-fire comic timing, as with such screwball outings as "The Whole Town’s Talking" (1935), and with colorful, cerebral supporting roles, as in "Double Indemnity" (1944). Able to command the screen by both verve and subtlety, he played his roles with such archetypal distinction and verbal flare that he would wind up inspiring a number of cartoon characters, from the shorts of Warner Bros. studio-mate Bugs Bunny while he was alive to lovably inept constable Chief Wiggum in American television’s longest-running show, "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ).
He was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania on Dec. 12, 1893, the fifth of six sons, but the family decided to emigrate to the U.S. to avoid the persecution that beset Jewish people there and across Europe. Emanuel made the crossing with his parents when he was nine, the family settling in the rough-and-tumble ghetto of the Lower East Side of New York. He attended PS 137 and Townsend Harris Hall High School, along the way excelling in his studies and becoming an ace semiotician, and earned a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was there he was advised to change his name to ease his way into professional acting, where ethnic names were frowned upon, and he became Edward G. Robinson. Graduating AADA, he took a series of theater-related jobs, from menial gofer work to eventual starring roles with stock companies. He joined the U.S. Navy when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, though he served a relatively uneventful hitch, and mustered out to find work on Broadway. Like many actors of the day, he had less-than-happy early experiences with the nascent movie industry, after which he kept to New York’s theatrical circles. There, he met an aristocratic divorcee named Gladys Lloyd, and, though she was of proper Boston WASP circles and already a young mother, they married in 1926.
The next year, he starred in a play called "The Racket," which had him as a criminal heavy for the first time, but far from the last. The hit production got the attention of movie studios, and though he deflected their offers for years, in 1929 Paramount producer Walter Wanger finally persuaded him to come to the burgeoning film capital in Los Angeles with $50,000 and a chance to star opposite Broadway luminary Claudette Colbert in the film "The Hole in the Wall" (1929). His work so impressed industry players that he grudgingly returned to L.A. for a follow-up film, "East Is West" (1930), for $100,000. Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis finally convinced Robinson to go on contract in 1930. It was with Warner, in 1931, that he made the film that would cement the image he first rendered in "The Racket," "Little Caesar." He played Rico, the tough-as-nails mobster scheming and murdering his way to the top, compromised only by a near-imperceptible spark of humanity. The film became a phenomenon, even confounding Robinson, whose pacifistic nature and even temperament made him the opposite of the antihero that made him a household name.
He and Gladys became bicoastal for a time, starting their family in New York in 1933 with the birth of a son, Manny, but eventually moved permanently to Beverly Hills. Warners used Robinson liberally in ruthless tough-guy roles in such films as "Smart Money" (1931, co-starring fellow tough James Cagney), "The Hatchet Man" (1932), and "The Last Gangster" (1937), though typecasting rankled him. He flipped sides deftly, taking tough/good-guy roles in "Bullets or Ballots," opposite then-up-and-coming heavy Humphrey Bogart, and as crusading prosecutor in "I Am the Law" (1938). He shone when allowed more texture, as a steelworker waiting to be executed for murder in "Two Seconds" (1932), as a miner-turned-blustery millionaire politician in "Silver Dollar" (1932) and as an idealistic youth who becomes corrupted by inherited wealth and narcissism in "I Loved a Woman" (1933). He particularly excelled in screwball comedies exploiting his tough-guy persona, as bootleggers put out of business by Prohibition’s repeal in "The Little Giant" (1933) and "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938), as both a mild-mannered clerk and his double, a Rico-esque goon, in "The Whole Town’s Talking," opposite Jean Arthur; and as criminal masterminds who inadvertently wind up pillars of the community in "Brother Orchid" (1940) and "Larceny Inc." (1943).
One of his personal favorite performances would be far off the beaten path, in "Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet" (1940), in which Robinson submerged himself in the character of the passionate, driven German scientist who first cured syphilis. He did two unsavory characters for über-director Michael Curtiz, as an unscrupulous boxing manager in "Kid Galahad" (1937) and a draconian sea captain in "The Sea Wolfe." From 1937-1942, he even found time to do a regular radio show, playing a crusading newspaper editor in the "Big Town." As the war years approached, with dark portents for fellow Jews in Europe, Robinson also began showing liberal stripes, joining anti-fascist groups before it was fashionable and making it onto the radar of the U.S.’s welling anti-communist cadres. In the meantime, his home life became strained, as Gladys grew distant, later to be diagnosed manic-depressive. He also let his contract with Warners lapse, opting to buck the studio system for free agency, but as the war years ebbed and burgeoning anti-communist hysteria looming darkly over those with leftist political inclinations, his days as a leading man wound down.
Robinson’s performances would be no less lauded, as would be evident in his first high-profile supporting role as an imperturbable, relentless insurance investigator in the noir classic "Double Indemnity" (1944). Though his top-billing remained for a few more years, he would increasingly share the spotlight, as in the ensemble piece "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" (1945), an idyllic rendering of a selfless agrarian community that would lead the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to charge screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with spreading subversive communist messages; and "All My Sons" (1948), an Arthur Miller-penned American tragedy with Robinson’s unscrupulous past coming back to haunt his family, including the up-and-coming Burt Lancaster. Robinson would subsequently make a deep imprint in noir with a flurry of dark thrillers, including two for director Fritz Lang, "The Woman In the Window" (1944) and "Scarlet Street" (1945), Orson Welles’ classic "The Stranger" (1946), "The Red House" (1947), "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" (1948) and Joe Mankiewicz’s "House of Strangers" (1949) – the latter winning him "best actor" award at the Cannes Film Festival. His sneering, imperious turn as Johnny Rocco, the manipulative mobster on the lam in John Huston’s "Key Largo," would make for a triumphal reunion with Bogart, the two playing off each other in a taut cat-and-mouse drama – though with Bogart now top-billed. Both actors had stood up to the HUAC, but as the studios kow-towed to the Red-hunters and instituted the blacklist, they and many bona fide Hollywood liberals backtracked, showed fealty or named names of suspected communists to prove their loyalty. Though at one point scandalizing Hollywood by helping out the wife of Trumbo – who was blacklisted with the Hollywood Ten, imprisoned for contempt of congress, then exiled – HUAC called Robinson to testify three times in the early 1950s before clearing him of overt communist affiliation. He found himself "graylisted" – not officially blacklisted but big studio jobs dried up. Still, he tended to elevate the films he did make, such as "Vice Squad" (1953), "The Glass Webb" (1953), even a return to his gangster imprint in "Black Tuesday" (1954), to something well above the B-flicks they otherwise were.
Back in New York, he also returned to Broadway, earning a Tony Award nomination in 1956 for best actor in a dramatic role for "Middle of the Night," and did more and more TV guest shots and theatrical anthology shows as the decade wore on. His film appearances became rare in the second latter half of the decade, his only notable turn as a scheming, heretical Hebrew Dathan in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic "The Ten Commandments" (1956) – DeMille conspicuously one of the Hollywood’s complicit Red baiters. Meanwhile, his marriage to Gladys reached the breaking point and they divorced in 1956. He had become an avid collector of art, but his forced fall from the A-list left him financially strapped, and the divorce settlement required him to sell much of his collection, and that trauma went further compounded by son Manny’s own developing mental illness.
He would marry again, one Jane Adler, in 1958, and begin rebuilding his art collection, even as his film work resumed once Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to script "Spartacus" (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist. Robinson took on mostly colorful, sagely supporting roles – sometimes mere cameos – in "My Geisha" (1962), "The Prize" (1963), the Rat Pack vehicle "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (1964), "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965), "The Biggest Bundle of Them All" (1968) and "McKenna’s Gold" (1969). He did his last turn as a mobster, but playing it daffy this time, in "Never a Dull Moment" (1968) opposite Dick Van Dyke, and got his final top-billing in an ABC TV movie, playing an elderly man who witnesses a crime and fears his life now to be in danger in "The Old Man Who Cried Wolf" (1970). But his health was not what it once was; while shooting "A Boy Ten Feet Tall" in Africa, he suffered a heart attack, and four years later back in L.A. he barely survived a car crash. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1970, and began an ongoing chemotherapy regimen. In 1972, he took a final role supporting his co-star from "The Ten Commandments," Charlton Heston, in the eerie sci-fi film "Soylent Green" (1973). One story has it that, though Robinson was nearly deaf at this point, only Heston knew the full, critical state of his health, and that in the scene where Robinson opts to end his life peacefully versus abiding their apocalyptic existence, Heston’s on-screen tears represented real anguish at the parallel of circumstances. Robinson hoped to attend the spring’s Academy Awards, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences planned to award him a lifetime achievement award, but on Jan. 26, 1973, mere weeks after production on "Soylent" wrapped, Robinson died.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Immigrated to USA at age 10
Began appearing in stock productions
First film appearance in "The Bright Shawl"
Appeared on Broadway in "The Racket", playing a character modeled on Al Capone; production also performed in Los Angeles
Began making regular film appearances; first film "A Hole in the Wall"
Top stardom clinched with his appearance in the landmark Warner Brothers gangster film, "Little Caesar"
Left Warner Brothers; next film for the studio would not be until "Key Largo" (1948)
Testified before HUAC; film career revived, first in "B" movies
Worked in theater among other venues, starring on Broadway in "Middle of the Night"
Made first TV commercial, for Maxwell House Coffee
Involved in near fatal automobile accident
Last film, "Soylent Green"